Thursday March 11th, 2010

NEW YORK -- As a Syracuse player, Gerry McNamara won a national championship and two Big East tournament titles. As he points out, they didn't happen in the same year.

Now a graduate assistant with the Orange, McNamara will undoubtedly provide a history lesson this week to Syracuse's current players after enduring a Big East tournament quarterfinal loss Thursday to eighth-seeded Georgetown, 91-84, their second straight defeat since clinching the Big East regular-season title.

"I won this tournament twice, and both times we got bounced in the first round [of the NCAAs]," McNamara said. "In 2003, we lost [to Connecticut in the semifinals] and went on to win a national championship. I'm not saying we're going to win the national championship, but I feel we're one of those teams that has a chance to make a run."

A lot of hoopheads have shared that sentiment all season when talking about the Orange (28-4), which shattered relatively low preseason expectations and have been a projected No. 1 NCAA seed for months. Their patented zone defense wreaked havoc every Big East team not named Louisville.

But many may now find themselves questioning their confidence in 'Cuse come Sunday when the bracket is announced.

Syracuse still figures to be a No. 1 seed due to its seasonlong body of work, but the Orange have opened themselves to questioning, not just with a pair of defeats but a potentially troubling injury. With just over five minutes remaining against the Hoyas, center Arinze Onuaku fell awkwardly on his right knee and had to be helped to the locker room. He was later seen leaving on crutches. Team officials described the injury as a "strain," and Onuaku, who had surgery on the same knee a year ago, will undergo an MRI on Friday morning to determine whether he'll be available for Syracuse's first-round NCAA game.

"He's a key part of our team. He's had a great year," coach Jim Boeheim said. "We hope that he'll be fine. We don't know."

Syracuse's troubles Thursday began long before Onuaku went down. In an intense, up-tempo contest that saw both teams shoot well over 50 percent and six different players score at least 17 points, the Orange took a 59-51 lead with 12:40 remaining before Georgetown stormed to a 19-2 run. A slew of Syracuse turnovers (17 on the day) led to open-court opportunities for the Hoyas, and while the Orange did an admirable job limiting shot opportunities for Georgetown big man Greg Monroe, he continually set up hot-shooting guards Chris Wright (27 points), Austin Freeman (18) and Jason Clark (17) for open looks.

The Orange made a brief surge to get within two, 74-72, with 4:12 left before the Hoyas pulled away again.

But neither Boeheim nor his players seemed too bothered by the loss. For one thing, Georgetown (22-9) isn't exactly a slouch, having previously beaten seven RPI top-50 foes (including potential No. 1 seed Duke and Villanova). And the Orange had already beaten the Hoyas on two previous occasions (a 73-56 rout at the Carrier Dome and a 75-71 win in D.C. in which they fended off a furious second-half rally).

To hear them describe it, Thursday's result was as much a product of familiarity.

"Teams in our league at this stage of the year know how to attack us," Boeheim said. "We're looking forward to getting out and playing somebody that hasn't seen us."

There, in a nutshell, is the rub with conference tournaments. If you're a bubble team fighting for its NCAA life -- like McNamara's 2006 Syracuse team -- this week takes on mammoth proportions. If you're already sitting pretty like this year's Orange ... well, you can take it or leave it.

"You never like to lose," said senior guard Andy Rautins, who hit 4-of-9 threes but went largely silent for most of the second half. "We'll let this one hurt tonight, but this gives us an opportunity to get some rest and reenergize for the [NCAA] tournament."

"We have a bigger tournament coming up," Kris Joseph said. "We have to have a short memory."

If there was one good memory for Orange fans to take away from Thursday's defeat, it was the sterling performance from Big East Player of the Year Wesley Johnson, who hit 10-of-17 shots en route to a 24-point afternoon, his biggest scoring output since November. Johnson has been hampered by a much-chronicled hand injury suffered on Feb. 2 against Providence. He said Thursday he'd been feeling better ever since doctors gave him a cortisone shot on March 3 to alleviate swelling near his thumb.

"I have to do a better job of getting him the ball more when he's hot like that," point guard Scoop Jardine said.

Other things Syracuse's players said they'd like to do better than they have the past two games: Crash the boards, get back in transition and get the ball to their big men. You know -- just a little housecleaning.

Things change quickly in college basketball -- less than two weeks ago, the Orange were basking in a 95-77 rout of Villanova that lifted them to No. 1 in the polls -- and Thursday's game could seem like a distant memory once the other contenders complete their own conference tourneys over the next several days.

"That team is still one of the best, if not the best, team in the country in spite of today's outcome," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III.

Or, perhaps fellow contenders like Kansas and Kentucky will storm through their conference tournaments, or Onuaku's injury will turn out more serious than believed, in which case the Syracuse bandwagon may thin considerably come Sunday.

If anything, the Orange would probably prefer that. They spent much of their Big East season carrying the label of "surprise team," before they piled up so many wins they could no longer be ignored. While they still want that No. 1 seed, they wouldn't mind sneaking up on another field.

"We're still as confident as we were before," said Joseph. "We're going to play a lot of teams that aren't as comfortable with our zone. If we play some teams that can't handle our zone, it's going to be a tough night for them.

"We'll be rested and ready to go."

Just ask McNamara the benefits of a little unwanted rest.

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